'The Amazing Oscar Micheaux' Returns In Song

Although he is little known today and many of his films are lost, Oscar Micheaux was this country's first great African-American filmmaker. Now his life and work have been set to music in the new album by Stace England and the Salt Kings called The Amazing Oscar Micheaux. Guest host Ari Shapiro talks to England about the concept album.

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ARI SHAPIRO, host:

Oscar Micheaux was this country's first major black filmmaker. He began as a homesteader, then worked as a Pullman porter and a novelist. Micheaux went on to write, produce and direct all black films - first silent then talkies -early in the last century. Some of his movies were direct responses to the racial stereotypes portrayed in the movies of D.W. Griffith. Others took on controversial themes, like lynching, and in the film "God's Stepchildren," passing for white.

(Soundbite of movie, "God's Stepchildren")

Unidentified Woman: If you see me, you don't know me. Even if you pass me on the street, I am a stranger; you are a stranger. Oh, I know it's hard but for me it's the only way. One other is suicide, and I still want to live, mother. I want to live.

(Soundbite of music)

SHAPIRO: Oscar Micheaux's life and work have now been set to music. The new album by Stace England and the Salt Kings is called "The Amazing Oscar Micheaux."

(Soundbite of song)

Mr. STACE ENGLAND (Lead Singer, Stace England and the Salt Kings): (Singing) Well, I've gone (unintelligible), to a place unknown. No love was left, (unintelligible) come in stone...

SHAPIRO: Stace England joins us now from member station WSIU in Carbondale, Illinois. Welcome.

Mr. ENGLAND: Thank you for having me.

SHAPIRO: I think many Americans have never heard of Oscar Micheaux. So, tell me more about the arc of his life. How did he get from being the first black homesteader in South Dakota to creating 44 films between 1919 and 1948?

Mr. ENGLAND: He was a man of iron will and determination, and is really looking for a way to make a name for himself in a way that African-Americans could at the time, and decides to become a farmer and ends up homesteading in South Dakota. But in his isolation on the South Dakota prairie, he decides to start writing books, and writes a book and publishes it in 1913 called "The Conquest" about his homesteading experience.

Writes two more books and writes another in 1917 called "The Homesteader." And about that time, a very small black film company started negotiating with Micheaux about making the book into a film. Negotiations ensue and Micheaux says, I can make a better film myself. I'm going to do it on my own, and he does.

When that film was released in 1919, "The Homesteader," it was an absolute sensation because for the first time African-Americans could see themselves in roles that were heroic and not the stereotypical things that were being produced around Hollywood and the rest of the country.

SHAPIRO: And "The Homesteader" is the title of the first track of this album. Let's listen to a little bit of it.

(Soundbite of song, "The Homesteader")

Mr. ENGLAND: (Singing) Well, you know his name is the homesteader, scratching the liver from a (unintelligible). You know his story, you know it well. You lived it too, but you can't tell. Claims things in a (unintelligible). Make it to a (unintelligible). Calling back, all (unintelligible) do, and God in his best(ph) will make it through...

SHAPIRO: Many of his films took on intensely controversial racial issues -somewhere a direct response to D.W. Griffith. "Birth of a Nation," for example, was a Griffith film that was deemed by some to be racist. Micheaux responded by creating a story of an African-American who poses as white and rides with the KKK. That's quite a concept there.

Mr. ENGLAND: It's quite out there. I think you're referring to the film, "Symbol of the Unconquered," which he did exactly what you described, including some camera angles that sort of mock Griffith. More interesting, perhaps, is the film right before that. His first pushback to "The Birth of a Nation" was "Within Our Gates." And what's so dramatic about the film in 1920 - it was Micheaux's second film - people were expecting, after "The Homesteader," his first film, an uplifting story and all the rest of that.

And what they got was stunning. It was this "Birth" pushback, which included scenes of the lynching of an entire innocent family and the attempted rape of the main character, Sylvia Landry, whose attacker turned out to be her birth father. So, audiences were simply stunned by that. Adding to the mystique of both those films was that they were lost for decades - about 60 years - and only rediscovered in Madrid and Brussels in about 1990 and brought back to the States.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. ENGLAND: (Singing) Sylvia, Sylvia Landry, how does your garden grow? With our best intentions, (unintelligible) wish to sow...

SHAPIRO: How big an impact did Micheaux make in his day? Were his audiences black and white? Did he have a big following?

Mr. ENGLAND: He had a big following early on because African-Americans in theaters throughout the country that couldn't get into the regular white theater network were drawn to these films. And Micheaux always believed he could cross that color barrier and have whites want to watch his films. That never happened, and I think that was really heartbreaking to him.

SHAPIRO: Micheaux's last film was by all accounts a disaster. It was more than three hours long, everyone panned it, including the New York Times, which was reviewing one of his films for the first time ever. This film was called "The Betrayal." Let's listen to a bit of your song by the same title.

(Soundbite of song, "The Betrayal")

Mr. ENGLAND: (Singing) When everyone loves you and the world is your oyster, and you've forgotten where you came from. What we do if you weren't abandoned and all is forsaken and brands, you have none.

Micheaux really got out of the movie business about 1940 and basically said, look, I'm tired of the money chase; I'm not doing this anymore, and began to write books again. And then got the itch again about '47, and said I'm going to make one last long blockbuster to cement my legacy and did "The Betrayal." And this was yet another retelling of his homesteader experience. Studio...

SHAPIRO: Revisiting the same thing that his first novel had been about, that his first film had been about, just coming back to it again and again.

Mr. ENGLAND: That's correct. So, Micheaux's mistake was coming back because he lost most of his money in making the film. And even the black press deserted him at this movie. The Chicago Defender called it a tasteless bore. But Micheaux was always pushing forward. He passed away on another promotional trip in 1951. And the other interesting thing about this film, it's a lost movie. The material was lost. The rumors...

SHAPIRO: I was going to say, like so many of his other films. So now we can't judge for ourselves whether it was any good or not.

Mr. ENGLAND: That's right. And the rumors are - maybe not founded - that his wife, Alice Russell, was so distraught over his treatment over this movie that she destroyed all the copies. That may be or may not be true, but there's always hope that in somebody's attic, under somebody's quilt, some of these films are going to be rediscovered, and maybe "The Betrayal" would be one of those.

SHAPIRO: Stace England, thanks for speaking with us.

Mr. ENGLAND: My pleasure.

SHAPIRO: Stace England and the Salt Kings' latest CD is called "The Amazing Oscar Micheaux."

(Soundbite of song)

SHAPIRO: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Ari Shapiro. Happy New Year.

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